Reporting the hard facts
by Vicki Wolf, March 2008
Dina Cappiello is an award-winning environmental journalist who follows the story looking for specific, factual information about environmental problems that communities need in order to push for change. Her investigative environmental reporting has taken her from early morning tracking of waste haulers, to a Houston Ship Channel fence-line community with monitors to test for toxics in the air.
Cappiello was studying biology to become a doctor at Georgetown University when an opportu-nity to study abroad at Trinity University in Ireland opened new doors. Asked to select a spe-cialty, Cappiello chose environmental science and became engrossed in the topic. “I consumed everything I could get my hands on about the environment. We were in Dublin Bay digging up mollusks,” she remembers with excitement in her voice. While in Ireland, Cappiello also became inspired to write. She wrote short stories and did journaling.
“I liked environmental science and I liked writing,” she recalls, “but I didn’t see a way to forge the two.” After graduating from Georgetown with a bachelor’s degree in biology, Cappiello de-cided to teach, moved to Boston and applied for a master’s in education at Columbia University. Looking through the course book for her graduate studies, Cappiello knew she wanted to take courses on science and writing. In the list of writing courses, she came across “Earth & Envi-ronmental Science Journalism. “I said, oh my God, I never thought I could write about environ-mental science.” Her career path took a new direction. Cappiello studied at Columbia University for three years instead of one, and received her master’s degrees in both journalism and envi-ronmental science. She became an environmental journalist rather than a teacher. “I really be-lieve it was all connected,” she says. “Journalism is a form of education to the masses.”
The Manchester Neighborhood near the Houston Ship Channel was lucky Cappiello chose to dig into the facts about pollution the refineries spewed into their community day and night. Up until then, their complaints about odors, stinging eyes and illness from the toxic pollution coming from the Ship Channel refineries were not taken seriously. The evidence was “anecdotal,” per-sonal experience that could be easily disputed. Industry executives and even government agency representatives, who were suppose to protect public health, responded with, “Our numbers don’t show that there is any problem.”
Cappiello knew that more story-telling about the problem would do no good. She needed cold, hard, indisputable facts. “I wanted to shed more light on it,” Cappiello recalls. “People in the neighborhoods didn’t know what to do. They were getting mixed messages.”
Guided by her scientific background, Cappiello started looking for the best ways to quantify the toxic pollution that was plaguing the families living on the fence line of the refineries. She talked to experts to find out what methods of testing the air would be respected and visited the neighborhoodS several time. Then she drafted a memo to the Houston Chronicle editors telling them what she wanted to do. “I had to convince one of the managing editors to do the series. I took her to Manchester,” Cappiello says. “As soon as she saw how close the homes were to the refineries she said, ‘We have to do this.”’
Cappiello conducted a study of the industrial pollution from the Houston Ship Channel and its effect on the Manchester community. She became familiar with families living in Manchester and they helped her with the study by allowing monitors to be placed around their homes. “I spent days and days walking the Ship Channel,” Cappiello recalls. “I came to know these people, talking to them for six months.” She says they were eager to participate in finding out what was in the air and how it was affecting their health.
Cappiello’s in-depth investigation and documentation of the risk from toxic industrial emissions for the Manchester Neighborhood became, “In Harm’s Way,” the 2005 series of articles on the issue, which ran for a week in the Houston Chronicle. The Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) honored her for the series with the Kevin Carmody Award for Investigative Reporting. The series was also recognized by the National Association of Environmental Professionals for envi-ronmental education. Cappiello was a finalist for the Edward J. Meeman award and was featured on the PBS program, “Expose’: America’s Investigative Reports.” In 2006, Cappiello received Asssociated Press and Managing Editors’ award for best specialty reporter in Texas.
Award-winning environmental journalism was Cappiello’s standard from the start of her career. In her first job as a reporter at the Times Union newspaper in Albany, New York, Cappiello wrote a long-running series on the clean-up of PCB’s in the Hudson River from a General Elec-tric facility. Another Cappiello series explained the environmental impact of acid rain on the lakes of the Adirondacks.
Cappiello’s first major investigative series involved getting up at the crack of dawn to follow waste haulers. Her editor had heard that recycling was being picked up and dumped in landfills instead of being recycled. He asked Cappiello to investigate. “I would go in my pajamas in my car with my notebook every morning,” she says. “I had to tag one of them, and low and behold on the last morning I saw it. I followed a Browning Ferry Industries truck hauling recycling to a landfill,” Cappiello recalls.
As with the investigation of “In Harm’s Way,” the public became involved. “People in New York are very serious about recycling,” says Cappiello. “Governor Elliot Spitzer ordered an in-vestigation and people really got into it. They started videotaping waste haulers.”
While working for the Times Union, Cappiello won numerous awards for her work. In 2001, she was named Young Journalist of the Year by the New York State Associated Press Association. Her excellent work ultimately led to the next step in Cappiello’s career path. When the editor of Times Union was hired by the Houston Chronicle, he invited her to come and work for him in Houston.
Regarding the response to her work on “In Harms Way,” Cappiello says she was floored. Right after the series came out there was a hearing at a high school in Manchester. “When the state didn’t show up for the hearing, that opened another path to explore as a reporter,” Cappiello says. “The next step would be to ask what they are going to do about the results.” Since then, ef-forts by Mayor Bill White and the state have resulted in some facilities cutting 1,3 butadiene emissions by half. “The next question to ask is: if they can do it, why can’t everybody else do it?” Cappiello says. “It is always validating when your work can get some kind of action. For me, it was about the people. I was their advocate.”
In order to move from covering regional news to national and international news, Cappiello left the Houston Chronicle to take a job with Congressional Quarterly, November 2007 in Washing-ton, DC. She recently took a new job with Climate Wire, a new online newsletter, covering envi-climate change news all over the world.
Cappiello will continue to live in Washington, DC with her new husband Andrew. In her leisure time she likes to cook. She and Andrew also enjoy exploring the city and neighborhoods with the idea of maybe buying a house there.